Raising the academic attainment of poorer pupils has been an explicit aim of the last four British governments. Over the last 20 years a range of policies, from sponsored academies to the Pupil Premium, have been introduced to this end. Whitney Crenna-Jennings is a Senior Researcher at the Education Policy Institute and writes in Prospect Magazine reports.
To date, a degree of success can be claimed: the attainment gap between disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged pupils is in the process of narrowing. This week, in a major speech on social mobility, Education Secretary Damian Hinds set out his plans to ensure that this progress was maintained.
The gap remains glaring. Pupils eligible for free school meals are one and a half years behind non-disadvantaged pupils by the time they sit their GCSEs. The very worst off, those with little to no family employment for most of their school lives, are two whole years behind—a gap that has not shifted since 2011. Alarmingly, we find that at the current rate, the disadvantage gap in education is not set to close until 2155.
Meanwhile other indicators of social mobility in England are flashing red. The intergenerational wealth and income gap is growing, and housing costs for the poorest families with children have risen by 50 per cent in the last 15 years. A third of children live in relative after-housing-cost poverty, up 3 percentage points in the last five years. We are also seeing a widening disparity between the outcomes of disadvantaged children and young people in London and the rest of the country.
Policy-makers hold up education as a cornerstone of social mobility, yet EPI’s findings suggest that the education system is failing to deliver. Indeed, international evidence shows that England has some of the widest social inequalities in educational outcomes among high-income countries.
Why is this the case? The attainment gaps we find in schools cannot be walled off from other social inequalities. How a child performs is a product of many layered factors.
Children must have a good level of health and well-being—largely a function of support provided from the very beginning. This includes good quality housing, access to books and educational experiences that promote cognitive stimulation, as well as positive interfamily relationships. Communities and local services matter too. Challenging social and economic circumstances make it less likely that children benefit from these experiences, and begin school prepared to learn and progress.
Once in school, poorer children face further hurdles: schools serving disadvantaged communities are more likely to be characterised by higher teacher turnover and a less experienced workforce. More disadvantaged pupils experience destabilising moves, marking down in assessments and stigmatising placement into lower ability groups regardless of prior attainment. The psychological stress that results from these experiences is linked to poorer attainment.
With these problems seemingly deep-rooted, what interventions should we prioritise to combat them?
Read suggestions in the full article On current trends the education gap will persist until 2155
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